At synod and churchwide assemblies and in many parishes the communicant is presented a menu with a variety of options: broken loaf or wheat wafers or gluten-free wafers, wine drunk from a common cup, a cup for intinction, or wine in individual containers, or a non-alcoholic beverage. The institution narratives of the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament don’t give us much direction: a broken loaf and a shared cup. Yet the elements that are used are important: Augustine called them “visible words.” The earthly elements are, in fact, the sacramenta, the sacred signs. St. Paul saw the participation (koinonia) in one loaf and one cup as a sign of the unity of the Church (1 Corinthians 10:16).
We assume, at least from the cultural-historical context, that the loaf was wheat bread and that there was wine in the cup (probably mixed with water — more about this below). But was the bread unleavened? According to the synoptic gospels the last supper of Jesus and his disciples, at which the Lord’s Supper was instituted according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23, was a Passover Seder for which unleavened bread was required. The Gospel of John does not agree that the last supper was a Passover Seder; he says that Jesus gathered with his disciples for a meal “before the Festival of the Passover” (John 18:1). But John also doesn’t provide an institution narrative; instead we get the foot washing. Be that as it may, the Eucharist in the early Church was not a continuation of the Passover Seder. So unleavened bread is not required for the Eucharist.
In fact the Western Church’s exclusive use of unleavened bread became a source of contention between the Greek and Latin Churches. By the ninth century the use of unleavened bread had become universal and obligatory in the West, while the Greeks, desiring to emphasize the distinction between the Jewish Pesach and the Christian Pasch, continued the exclusive offering of leavened bread. The issue became divisive when the provinces of Byzantine Italy, which were under the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople, were forcibly incorporated into the Church of Rome following their invasion by the Norman armies. The Byzantine Rite was suppressed in southern Italy and replaced with the Latin Rite and its use of unleavened wafers. Patriarch Michael Caerularius of Constantinople responded to this situation in 1053 by ordering all the Latin churches in the Byzantine capital to be closed and the Latin monks to be expelled. In retaliation Greek Churches were closed in Rome. There were other issues, like the use of the filioque (“and the Son”) in the Creed (which the Latins inserted without consulting the Greeks). But the theological touchstone became the use of unleavened wafers. In popular Greek opinion, the azymes (flour and water wafers) of the “Franks” were not bread; they were eating like Jews rather than Christians. Their lifeless bread could only symbolize a soulless Christ; therefore, they had clearly fallen into the heresy of Apollinaris. The fight over food at the Lord’s Supper, and specifically the controversy over azymes, became a major source of the East-West schism of 1054. That’s a serious food fight!
Two seemingly contradictory developments dominated eucharistic faith and practice in the Western Middle Ages. On the one hand the eucharistic debates of the ninth and eleventh centuries led to the formulation and promulgation of the dogma of transubstantiation. Yet in spite of the growing belief that the bread changes into body at the words of Christ, there remained an awareness that the Eucharist is essentially food intended for nourishment. Thus, great concern was shown for the bread and wine as food and drink. The wheaten bread and the fine grape wine satisfies hunger and quenches thirst. The fourteenth-century moral allegory of Piers Plowman is constructed around images of ploughing and food production, a merging of images of physical food and spiritual food. So in spite of the eucharistic realism of the high scholastic period, the Augustianian distinction between the visible sign (sacramentum) and the sacramental reality behind it (res) continued to persist in pastoral teaching. In spite of a formulary such as Hugh of St. Cher’s that “when the bread becomes Christ’s body, nothing at all remains of the bread, that is, nothing is shared in common,” great care was taken in the production of the bread. Baking wafers became a ritualized procedure in religious houses, accompanied by the chanting of psalms. Ministers in parish churches who baked wafers were to be vested in their surplices. The wafers were to be baked in a vessel coated with wax rather than in fat or oil so that they were not burned. A twelfth century tract answered the question of why only wheat was used with the answer that it is because Christ compared himself to a grain of wheat that falls into the ground and dies (see John 12:24).
Communion wine has drawn far less attention. The wine used in antiquity was strong, probably much stronger than our table wine. So it was cut with water for social drinking. The mixture of wine and water became a symbolic act in Eucharistic celebrations that was given various symbolic interpretations. Nevertheless, because the wine was more vulnerable to mishap in its handling than the wafers, by the twelfth century the cup was withheld from lay communicants. It was replaced in many places by a sip of unconsecrated wine, for symbolic symmetry and to make it easier to swallow the host. Synodical legislation shows concern that the communion wine should be fresh, that the consecration of vinegar in the chalice should be avoided, and that care should be taken that there be more wine than water in the chalice.
The Protestant reformers restored the cup to lay communicants. Communion cups even increased in size to accommodate more drinking from them. But with the rise of the science of epidemiology, and the tuberculosis epidemics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, fear of contagion resulted in bans on the use of common drinking containers, including the communion cup. Individual glasses became the rule in most Protestant congregations. In 1869 Thomas Bramwell Welch, a strong supporter of the temperance movement, discovered a method of pasteurizing grape juice that halted the fermentation process. This enabled him to produce a non-alcoholic wine to be used for church services in his hometown of Vineland, New Jersey. In the wake of the temperance movement, grape juice was routinely substituted for wine in many Protestant congregations. Lutherans, who tended not to be overly caught up in the temperance movement, by and large continued to use wine, which, it can be pointed out, is rich in biblical imagery and a symbol of festivity in a way grape juice cannot be.
But the use of grape juice also contributed to the increased use of individual glasses since the beverage lacked alcoholic content that could kill bacteria. In spite of the lack of scientific evidence that the common communion cup contributes to the spread of disease, people’s fears of contagion have not easily been overcome. Outbreaks of new viruses have caused further bans on the use of communion cups, so that the restoration of the cup has often been accomplished only through the practice of intinction (in which people’s far more germ-ridden finger tips get into the wine).
I want to return to the original food fight in the documentary history of the Lord’s Supper. The issue in Corinth wasn’t just that the patron and client classes in the church membership weren’t waiting for the slaves to get to the supper, but that different menus were being offered. The host felt obligated to provide one menu for his peers and a menu of lesser quality food for the clients of the patrons and the slaves. This was customary practice and it meant that class divisions in society were being perpetuated at the Lord’s Supper. Paul scolds them: “When you come together to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper [different menus], and one goes hungry [lesser quantities] and another becomes drunk [strong wine]. What? Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” In a typical banquet in someone’s home the lesser classes might even have been relegated to recliners and tables in the courtyard.
Once the Lord’s Supper was separated from an actual banquet, we see throughout history a concern to provide common fare, even if there was disagreement between Churches about what that fare should be. In the liturgical movement of the twentieth century there was concern to restore the common loaf as well as the common cup. The idea of a common meal also suggests one menu, and if options need to be provided it should be handled discreetly. Alcoholics, for example, can bypass the cup of wine and receive from the bread only, appealing to the doctrine of concomitance that the entire Christ is present under either species. (This doctrine was first developed to justify communing baptized babies from the wine only because they couldn’t chew the bread.)
But gluten allergies present a new wrinkle. It has been noticed that celiac disease and gluten allergies have increased dramatically in recent years. My wife began to develop symptoms of gluten allergy a few years ago, although she had not had such symptoms before. Some have thought that genetically modified wheat is to blame for the hikes in celiac and gluten sensitivity. But that is not the case for the simple reason that GMO wheat simply isn’t being grown commercially (yet).
That doesn’t mean wheat hasn’t changed over the last half-dozen decades, though. It has changed as the result of a process called hybridization. Some scientists (although not all) say those changes could be one cause of an increased inability to tolerate gluten. In hybridization, scientists don’t tinker directly with the plant’s genome. Instead, they choose particular strains of a plant with desirable characteristics and breed them to reinforce those characteristics. When this is done repeatedly, successive generations of a particular plant can look very different from the plant’s ancestors. So our modern wheat is shorter, browner, and far higher-yielding than wheat crops were 100 years ago. These wheat strains require less time and less fertilizer to produce a robust crop of wheat berries, which also produces more food for the world.
Dr. William Davis, author of the best-selling anti-wheat book Wheat Belly, raises questions in his book about whether these changes in wheat have caused the spike in gluten-related health problems, including obesity and diabetes. He argues that modern wheat has been bred to contain more gluten and small changes in wheat protein structure can produce a devastating immune response to wheat protein. However, a study by Donald D. Kasarda published in 2013 in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry cast doubt on part of Davis’ hypothesis when he reported that there’s not really any more gluten in modern wheat than there was in 1920s-era wheat.
So what is going on? That’s not clear. Studies do show a significant increase in the incidence of celiac disease over the last several decades. Anecdotally, gluten sensitivity also is rising, although there haven’t been any studies to confirm that (and some blame the current trendiness of the gluten-free diet for reported increases). Kasarda suggests that increased consumption of wheat in recent years — rather than increased gluten in the wheat actually consumed — might be in part to blame for increased incidence of celiac disease. He also says that the use of wheat gluten as an ingredient in processed foods might contribute to increased gluten intolerance.
The scientists will continue to do their research and argue their cases. In the meantime, we have the situation that an increasing number of people can’t tolerate one of the basic elements in the central rite of the Church. So we either have to provide gluten-free bread for those with celiac disease or provide gluten-free bread for the whole congregation so that we can truly share in the one loaf. Or the doctrine of concomitance can be invoked in this situation and, where gluten-free bread is not available, the communicant may commune in the wine only.
I haven’t gotten into issues of inculturation. What elements do you use in geographic places that don’t produce wheat and grapes? Rice cakes and saki in Japan? I won’t go there because inculturation is too big a topic. But I would argue that whatever elements are used, we should all be consuming the same ones in any given liturgical assembly. And I would also argue that the received tradition should be normative. The tradition that St. Paul received even before any of the gospels were written is one loaf and one cup. Any deviation ought to be as minimal as possible. And if exceptions need to be made to accommodate individual needs, these should be handled as discreetly as possible. Let us not confuse aging communicants like me with so many choices at the Lord’s Supper that I don’t know what to take or where to go to get it.
Frank C. Senn
Has your congregation had food fights surrounding the Lord’s Supper?
How might the historical context illuminated in this article inform congregations’ discourse and practice regarding the Lord’s Supper?
Have you witnessed or implemented any creative Eucharistic solutions to issues of food or alcohol intolerance?
- ^ 1 Corinthians 11:21-22.
- ^ William Davis, MD, Wheat Belly (New York: Rodale Books, 2011).
- ^ http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3573730/